Silent Running on Blu-ray

Monday, 14 November 2011 00:00

Nature-loving Lowell (Bruce Dern – “Monster”, “The ‘Burbs”) and his three insensitive colleagues onboard space freighter Valley Forge eagerly await an announcement from their bosses. The ship is one of several fitted with giant domes that preserve the last few forests and numerous endangered species. Back on Earth, the average temperature is 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and everything except man is dying out. Lowell hopes that the order will be to repopulate the planet with life; his colleagues could not care less.

The news comes over the radio that they must jettison the pods and blow them up, returning the freighters to commercial service forthwith. Lowell is dumbstruck but the others – Keenan (Cliff Potts), Barker (Ron Rifkin – Alias, “L.A. Confidential”) and Wolf (Jesse Vint) set about planting the explosives and destroying the ultra rare and fragile life onboard. When it comes to the final pod, Lowell refuses to give way and sets in motion a tragic sequence of events.

Silent Running comes to Blu-rayI first remember seeing this very special movie as a child during a BBC 2 classic SF season. The other films that were broadcast were trashy 1950s-1970s B-movies that captured my imagination and thrilled me, but “Silent Running” stood out. It was ponderous, emotive and sensitive. There were no aliens, space wars or ray guns. Instead the picture focused on the battle between capitalism and the preservation of nature, and one man’s fight for what he knows is right.

It sounds pretty dry and dull, you might say. Well yes, if you go in expecting explosions and fast-paced action then you might as well not bother. “Silent Running” is about compassion. It is about understanding the non-commercial but priceless experience of taking your wide-eyed child on a walk through a light-dappled forest filled with gently rustling trees. It is about the wonder of fresh, ripe, natural ingredients in a world where highly-processed and bland junk food is king.

Lowell tries time and again to explain his reason for tending so tirelessly to the flora and fauna in the domes, but his colleagues just laugh at him and carry on with their games of pool, cards and driving round the space ship at break-neck speeds in go-karts. This is just a temporary job to them and they are bored. They see the pods as an unnecessary distraction that is preventing them from returning to their normal, hyper lives.

Ultimately, Lowell is left alone on the ship with only the company of the three maintenance drones and the remaining wildlife. He befriends the cute robots and gives them names – Huey, Dewey and Louie. Being technically capable as well as a gardener, he reprograms the droids to do extra duties such as performing medical operations, playing card games and tending to the garden.

Part of the marvel of this movie is the way that the double-amputee actors inside the drone shells delicately convey life and intelligence. They share much in common with R2D2 from “Star Wars” but these robots are even more subtle, relying less on electronic beeps for communication and far more on movement and robotic arm and ‘mouth’ gestures to convey meaning. Lowell comes to love the robotic trio and the audience does, too.

Naturally, the themes of species becoming extinct, short-term commercial greed taking precedence over the bounty of long-term preservation and global warming are just as relevant now if not more so than they were in 1971. Lowell realises that if he plays by his employer’s rules he will lose, and with that loss goes the last vestiges of nature, forever. He has to take a stand, but the guilt of his actions as well as prior inaction as the other domes were destroyed eats away at him, especially when he is left all alone to dwell on such matters.

The tone of the movie is by no means one of unremitting seriousness and misery. There are plenty of more uplifting moments, especially when a frustrated Lowell interacts with the drones. Although they can learn to do many varied tasks, the process typically involves much trial and error, sorely testing his patience to amusing comedic effect.

If you have the slightest interest in the topics mentioned above, “Silent Running” will sweep you along on a magical, distressing and stimulating journey. Though it was made forty years ago, the special effects and set design are impeccable. Director Douglas Trumbull’s prior involvement in state-of-the-art SFX (for example “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Blade Runner” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) shines through, and his direction is also commendable if occasionally a little sluggish. Intelligent sci-fi films are quite hard to come by these days, though Duncan Jones’s “Moon” and Pixar’s splendid “Wall-E” continue to carry the torch and owe a lot to this gem.

The Blu-ray format finally and fully exploits movie’s marvellous visual design. The stunning model work, set design and detailed space backgrounds all look wonderful – detailed, realistic and evocative. The soundtrack may only be stereo but it has been cleaned up and brings to life Joan Baez’s moving songs and the constant radio chatter that keeps Lowell company for most of his journey.

Special features included in this new Blu-ray edition are new to UK fans but (with the exception of the booklet) have been seen before by those in possession of the Region 1 DVD:

  • Exclusively restored beautiful high-definition 1080p transfer
  • Full-length commentary by director Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern
  • Isolated music and effects track
  • Optional English SDH subtitles on the feature
  • The Making of “Silent Running”, a 1972 on-set documentary [50:00]
  • Two video pieces with Douglas Trumbull from 2001 [31:00 + 5:00]
  • A Conversation with Bruce Dern, a discussion with the actor [11:00]
  • Original theatrical trailer [3:00]
  • A lavish 48-page full-colour booklet featuring rare photographs and artwork from Trumbull’s personal collection, and recollections of the film’s cinematographer, special designs coordinator, and composer

For an old and relatively low-profile movie this is an excellent showing. The main making-of documentary is brilliantly put together, following the cast and crew around the decommissioned aircraft carrier they shot much of the feature on. Stand-out moments include seeing how the four double-amputees were fitted for the drone suits, and hearing how the carrier was refitted by the crew to squeeze in eight sets, a canteen, school, workshops and offices! Trumbull went on to become fascinated by experimental visual and cinematic technologies such as theme park rides (he directed the “Back to the Future” ride) and immersive 3D video games.

“Silent Runing” (1971) is out now, courtesy of Eureka Video. The running time is 90 minutes approx, certificate ‘U’ and the movie retails for £19.99 on Blu-ray, or less from

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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